The Gymnast Who Hasn’t Turned Off Her Olympic Countdown


Along with the remainder of the world, athletes have had their careers upended by the coronavirus pandemic. They are giving The New York Times an intimate have a look at their journeys in periodic installments by way of the remainder of the 12 months.

There are solely 4 spots on the 2021 United States Olympic workforce for ladies’s creative gymnasts, down from 5 on the 2016 Summer Games, and Sunisa Lee, a 17-year-old highschool junior from St. Paul, Minn., has an excellent likelihood of grabbing one among them.

At the world championships final fall, Lee, whom individuals name Suni, helped the United States win a workforce gold medal and in addition took home two particular person medals, a silver on the ground train and a bronze on the uneven bars.

Credit…Jenn Ackerman for The New York Times

But it was Lee’s efficiency on the nationwide championships in August that proved her toughness, as she excelled regardless of going through a scenario that would have crushed her.

A day earlier than Lee left for the nationals in Kansas City, Mo., her father and largest fan, John, fell off a ladder whereas serving to a good friend trim a tree department and sustained a spinal twine damage. He was paralyzed from the chest down.

Lee instructed just a few gymnasts on the competitors about her father’s damage as a result of she was afraid of being overwhelmed by emotion and she or he didn’t need any distractions. During the primary two follow days on the nationals, she may hardly focus as a result of as her father ready for an operation on his backbone.

But on her first day of competitors, he contacted her by FaceTime from his hospital mattress. She recalled his saying, “I’m OK. Just go out there and do what you normally do.”

So that’s what she did. Lee completed second to Simone Biles within the all-around occasion and received the uneven bars competitors. These days she’s restricted to merely swinging on the bars to maintain her hand energy.

Her aim is to make it to the rescheduled Olympics subsequent summer season for her father, for the remainder of her household and for fellow members of the Hmong group, an ethnic group from Asia that has established a big inhabitants in and round St. Paul.

Credit…Jenn Ackerman for The New York Times

This interview has been condensed and flippantly edited for readability.

It hasn’t actually hit me that the Olympics aren’t occurring this summer season. I’ve a countdown to the Olympic trials on my telephone. They would have been in June. I get unhappy after I see it, however I received’t delete it. I’m scared to let go of the truth that it’s not occurring, regardless that I do know it’s not. I don’t need it to be actual. I suppose I don’t settle for it as a result of the Olympics have been my largest dream and aim. I’ve been coaching for that aim day by day for 12 years now and couldn’t watch for the Olympics to occur.

And then after the Olympics, my household had deliberate to go to Laos, as a result of my dad and mom are from there. They needed us to see what their lives have been like earlier than they got here to the United States. They need us to know that not every little thing got here so simply for them, and so they need us to do higher and check out more durable so we will have good lives. So it’s disappointing to should cancel that journey. It’s all so disappointing.

My motivation to get to the Olympics has all the time been my household and my group. It can be such an enormous deal for a Hmong American to be within the Olympics for the United States. I need to be probably the greatest on the planet, however I additionally need to succeed for my household — we’ve a very large Hmong household — and the superb supporters which have helped me. I need to do it as a result of lots of people don’t know that I’m Hmong or what Hmong even is.

Credit…Jenn Ackerman for The New York Times

Right now, I’m at home a lot of the day as a result of so many issues are closed. My health club closed in March, and I used to spend perhaps six or seven hours within the health club day by day, in order that’s been bizarre and totally different. Now I spend lots of time with my household. I reside with my dad and mom and my three youthful siblings who’re 3, eight and 10. I even have two older siblings, my stepsiblings, who stick with us typically. We all assist my dad now that he’s in a wheelchair. I’ve additionally been serving to my mother with cooking and cleansing, as a result of I do know she has been by way of rather a lot with my dad. I understand how to make all of the Asian egg rolls like my mother.

But we simply discovered that our health club is opening on June 1, and I’m actually excited. To have the ability to go to the health club and really prepare once more is simply loopy. I believe it’s going to be superb. I’m so prepared for it.

Credit…Jenn Ackerman for The New York Times

School throughout quarantine isn’t so dangerous for me, as a result of I’m used to largely doing it on-line. I used to go to the precise public college for an hour a day. I’d go to at least one class and do the remaining at home. I take Algebra 2, Global Studies, World Literature and Chemistry, and now we get our assignments on-line each morning. I missed lots of college final 12 months due to the world championships, so I’ve been actually busy catching up with my assignments. I actually miss college as a result of I received to see my associates there. Now we simply FaceTime.

I am going to the health club typically to do my work. It’s closed to the general public, however my coach, Jess Graba, opens the doorways for me and he’s there cleansing up the health club or sending emails whereas I work. One of my teammates, Lyden Saltness, does schoolwork there, too, as a result of her mother is a instructor and she or he comes to assist us. There are lots of people in my home, and it’s quieter and the web is best on the health club. I arrange within the foyer and check out not to consider how a lot I’ve misplaced as a result of I haven’t been coaching and the way I haven’t seen my associates in such a very long time.

Lately, I’ve been performing some primary conditioning or stretching on the health club after I’m there on college days. It’s type of the identical stuff I’d do if I used to be at home. If the Olympics weren’t canceled, I’d be on my strategy to peaking, which implies I’d’ve been in one of the best form ever, doing my hardest routines. My coach says it’ll take many months for me to get again to the place I used to be earlier than the quarantine. He says for each week I missed, it’s going to take three weeks of labor to get that health again. I’ve missed about 9 weeks already.

Credit…Jenn Ackerman for The New York Times

I’m attempting to remain constructive, however I do fear about issues. I fear that I’m going to randomly catch the coronavirus and produce it home and never even know that I’ve it, after which my dad catches it. He’s actually weak proper now, so clearly that will be actually horrible. I fear that nothing is ever going to return to regular and the Olympics subsequent 12 months shall be canceled. I’m simply scared that I received’t have the ability to get again to the place I used to be bodily. I don’t know if my physique can take one other 4 years of this, as a result of a lot psychological, bodily and emotional coaching goes into it. But there’s nothing I can do about any of this so, I suppose, I’ll simply hope for one of the best and imagine that if I can put within the laborious work, good issues will occur.

Credit…Jenn Ackerman for The New York Times